Storytime: Egypt and Darker Days in India


India to Egypt, 1997.

We had been traveling for 9 months. Bruised, scarred, and calloused from bouncing jeeps and bitter camels, sleeping on hay mattresses, fending off insects of every type. It wasn’t terrible most of the time, always up for anything the world was offering us -we were just physically and emotionally exhausted.

Leaving India, after 2 months, ready for sand and space. Despite naked orphans sitting on cardboard boxes in the streets and lepers with stumps wrapped in newspaper – we saw our recently departed Bombay, or Mumbai, as it was now called, as a gleaming metropolis. People even swept the streets there. There was concrete to walk on. We traveled away from big cities most of the time….you learn to adjust expectations. In most parts of India, the homeless drifters sometimes don’t even have clothes. They sleep on railroad platforms, on piles of paper, in fields, where they also go to the bathroom. Naked children and old men, people shitting in pubic, burning garbage, general chaos at every turn, you kind of get used to it. I once waved from a train window back at a group of people who were waving at me, all while they pooped together on the side of the tracks. It’s just very different.

The time I had to time out myself…. to just breathe… was the day in Jaipur that we walked past a large hospital. Up ahead – we saw a restless group of crows, bickering and bustling alongside the hospital walls. As we got closer, we realized they were perched atop a large pile of medical waste: small pieces of tissue, bloody bandages, syringes, dirty gloves, flesh mixed with plastics. The crows were feeding on anything they could dig out of this mess, and I quickly rushed by, but already having taken in every bit of this image, seered into my brain. “Argh, why?!” I started crying, but couldn’t explain exactly…maybe because a crow was chewing on someone’s discarded appendix? I guess it was the abandon in which these items were dumped, in range of children, sick people, the eyes of anyone walking by. The world is harsh, and we forget that. I was fully jarred from my bubble and slapped with a new version of corruption and poverty. But also, life is hard and keeps moving.

In an old rickety hotel in Chennai, The Broadlands. You could sit up on the massive roof and watch flying foxes sail by. There was a basket of kittens that they kept in one part of the ground floor courtyard. Every day another kitten would be gone because the rats ate it. That was a jarring thing to take in, being from a cute-kittens-in-baskets culture, where we build special pedestals for our cats. One night, when the power was out all over the city, I walked through a corridor of The Broaldlands, thinking there was one of the local cats in front of me. It was actually a huge fat rat, that slinked into the shadows, it’s scaly tail shining in a thin ray of an oil lamp. I recoiled and ran away. I found out later that the rat had a name and they accepted his sinister presence. “Do not anger Durgha, we can live harmoniously together. Other kittens will be born, and others will die. ” So, it goes. Thank you for that perspective.

India is ancient, in-your-face and multi-faceted. It can seer an image or a memory so unique into you and never leave. It entices me with it’s dark and light, the never-ending adventure and grisly challenges. It is all things magnified. I have been there 3 times, and will not be done with the place, even though if horrifies me 70% of the time.

I had been eating only white food, like rice, bananas, cookies in the plastic long package, and bread, due to the burning ulcer forming in my stomach. It healed when I left India and slept more. If you are not raised eating chilies and heavy oil for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the restaurant food will make you sick eventually. I learned to make my own food in India later. But this sickness overcoming me had a lot to do with the Jaipur memory of The Hospital and the moment I felt like I was losing it.

The day I stared at the ceiling in Bikaner, thinking: “what if I just stop eating altogether? Yeah, that’s the answer.” Only the hangry made me hate everything. I was out of books to read, but not yet willing to scour the town for a new one. Getting up to re-wet the sarong I had wrapped around me. In the bathroom, next to the water spigot (there was no actual sink or shower, just a bucket -this is common) were old bindis that women had stuck to the wall. It felt seedy, but was also kind of funny. Nothing seemed real at this moment, other than my anger at India, in general. With damp sarong wrapped, I went back to the bed and stared at the paint on the walls as stomach burned, listened to the cacophony of life outside – a faint goat and blaring horns of tiny vehicles. We were fine roughing it before our arrival in Mumbai, where we needed to purchase plane tickets to Cairo. This place was a flophouse, but free of bedbugs and mosquitos, the people that owned it more than friendly. So hot you had to sleep in damp sheets with the fan blaring overhead.

10 days in the Thar Desert, drinking camel milk and running from dung beetles came before Mumbai. The sky at night, sleeping outside in the dunes and in the mornings -Pakistani planes speed overhead. Strange moments, half in darkness: the train station in Ahmedabad, within a few feet of the tracks were people living in piles of trash, with manged rats weaving in and out of the piles, dirty children with buckets, looking for anything salvageable. I don’t forget how that scene looked as the sun was sharply setting and soon I could only see eyes, and low wattage bare bulbs here and there. I was still on the platform, knowing that every inch surrounding was teeming with diseased life. We don’t understand what we have or what we waste.

West Rajasthan. This camel was snarky a lot of the time and couldn’t really blame him. I tried to love and support him, show him my gratitude for carrying me for 10 days, while reminding him who’s boss. Occasionally I would see one of his relatives out there, wild, and wish I could free him. but he was responsible for people’s livelihood. And how would I get back? Asses were blistered and bruised at the time of this photo. But he was a slave to humans and kept getting bottle ticks. He could run though, he enjoyed that. It felt very Star Wars whenever he did.

Mumbai was a few days of tea houses and ticket hunting, the old school British vibe and distinct caste system still very much alive. In the Mumbai airport marveling to my travel companion about the fancy chaise lounges made of leather. “Look at these! Have you ever seen a cleaner place with fancy nap lounges like this?”I sprawled out on the leather, noticed how it was built to cradle your back. Then somehow I was in Cairo. No recollection of the flight or the airport on the Egypt end.

Cairo, a bustling golden brown-toned city, full of dust and music, cab drivers, and grifters at every turn. We found an old hotel that had an ancient cage elevator, the whole place was like a 1930’s embassy. We got to our room after having shaken off a young guy in a jean jacket in the lobby who was trying to get us to go to a club with him.

The bed was legit. Four posters, clean sheets, no insects in sight, heavy drapes that blocked out the light. Solid, old walls, of another time. Classic and preserved. No sounds could penetrate our state of exhaustion. I remember lifting my head a few times, not knowing if it was light or dark out, and falling back asleep. We seemed to be synced to this level of hibernation, and both woke up, refreshed and ready for the next chapter. “It’s been 16 hours.”

The sun overpowered and menaced its way into the narrow corridors of Cairo as men’s voices competed with calls to prayer, honking horns, motorbikes, and blaring radios playing Middle Eastern pop music. We ate fresh falafel, kushari, drank karkade, pomegranates and mangoes, fresh squeezed. Drinking juice and smoking is everyone’s favorite vice. Sometimes you can secretly find alcohol, but only if you have a connection. We didn’t care, we were ecstatic to be there.

My head was covered, my skin covered as well. We didn’t take tour buses, not our style, but also because one got blown up a few weeks previously outside the Egyptian Museum. “God is Greater!” they yelled as they firebombed a bus with homemade bombs, fashioned out of 7up bottles – killing 10 people. It was said it was terrorism in retaliation for the Egyptian government enforcing the death sentence and imprisoning extremists, but other sources claimed it was a mentally ill nightclub owner. That didn’t stop throngs of tourists from coming to Egypt.

We learned of two very common types of white western tourists in Egypt: the extra terrestrial fanatics who visit the pyramids daily and try to talk to aliens and the Christian fanatics who are on bible tours, making their way to St Catherine’s monastery and eventually Jerusalem. The museum bustled and was incredible. The mummy monkey, complete with tattered tunic was a favorite. He was the pet of a pharaoh and his tiny face looked like it had seen things.

I could talk about the pyramids but what can I tell you that you haven’t already seen or read? There are men riding camels out in the desert. The Sphinx is a lot smaller than it looks in photos. There are firework shows at night. The heavy pollution that hangs over Cairo is easily seen from this vantage point. Climbing underground and being beneath the pyramids is weird. It smells weird, the ramps that slide you down are terrifying but worth it, because how can you not be curious about what’s down there. There is magic that happens as the sun sets and the camels are galloping around. Remarkable structures, but I also think of human slavery. About gratitude and suffering, religious zealotry, grand gestures, extraterrestrials. Everyone seems to have a moment when they sit there…..the pyramids themselves completely still, the earth radiating stillness almost as stars and satellites beam and shoot . Egypt is where you can see the 7 Sisters the best- in my opinion.

Leaving Cairo for the far southern town of Aswan.

In Aswan we slept hard again and then set out to Abu Simbel, where we marveled at our diminutive status next to the wonders of the Pharaohs. All of the kings were made huge and the queens small, sitting passively next to them. The scientific, precise placement of the the structures no longer applied as this whole monument was moved from its original location, meaning that the sun did not shine on the face of the Pharaoh every year on his birthday as it originally had, but rather somewhere off to the side, no longer having as dramatic effect. Impressive that the ancient Egyptians could figure out, in the middle of the desert, where to place this statue so that the sun shone perfectly on the exact time and day of birth.

After that, onward to Elephantine Island, home of the Nubians. The Nubians here in this place had been forced from their original land by the Aswan Dam, and now maintained the island as their hub of existence. This place was sleepy in the day and vibrant at night. It was a Little Sudan of sorts, because other than the Elephantine islanders, most people were Sudanese. We hung around for a day or two and met a chill and fun Nubian guy who had a cool felucca, and so we set out for 4 days up the Nile. Onward to Luxor, where a dark memory would be forever ingrained in my mind.

Trying to write about Luxor…..I can get to the biking part……the haziness of the tombs, because that wasn’t the most haunting bit. TBC…

Storytime: Shivaland

It would be nice to be in Gangnani right now. As I write this I conjure up the faint essence of burning wood, sulphur, cow dung, incense and chai. The signature scent of many places in mountainous, Far Northern India. It would be so cold, the Himalayan Foothills covered in snow. Not like the photos I found online. I don’t have many photos of when I was there.

The origin of the Ganges not far up in Gangotri, iced waves rushing over the boulders. Teal, silver, green, and white. No sounds but the birds and the magical mother river. Very few vehicles – a rickety bus that shows up once a day. Super narrow roads. White-knuckle type cliffhangers. You just have to let it go and let it be. In Gangnani, hanging high upon a mountain ledge, dipping into the piping hot sulfur springs and then cozying up to a potbelly stove. So simple and relaxing. Eating farina porridge, drinking chai, and reading musty books left behind by travelers.

This is Shiva country. You will know that by the random Tridents that you see posted along the way and the abundance of Shiva worshipping sadhus that you will see at certain market junctions. They get high on weed all day and even more on festival days. Shiva is like the Snoop Dog of the Hindu Lords and it shows wherever he reigns. I was not lucky enough to see a major Shiva happening here, unlike my very first day in Chennai, Tamil Nadu- which is all the way across India and far south. There, I saw a band of tiny children, not more than 5-7 years old, covered in white ash from head to toe, dreaded hair, walking quietly through clouds of smoke as eery instruments played a haunting beat. Shiva reigns. They had iron tridents pierced sideways through their cheeks. The Hindu cults of India are powerful and warrant an entire post all their own.

Here is a baby Shiva that I met in New Delhi

In these foothills there were old women, wry and shriveled, who climbed the mountain ridges, serpentining up and along until you could no longer see them, they were so small. I would sit on the wooden balcony in the morning and watch them hiking along the side of a mountain until they were out of my eyes’ reach. They went along and harvested the wild ganja that grows everywhere. Yes, 8 foot tall wild hemp plants as far as the eye can see. The ladies pick the fine leaves and bring their haul to their cabins in the forest where they rub the resinous oils from the plants and make giant cannabis braids called “Charas” and clay pipes that they call “Chillum”. It is a money maker and the way many villagers survive.

rubbing charas

Gangnani is very quiet and usually does not have a hippy party vibe, but at this time, 2002, over in Kasol, Parvati Valley, there are many guest houses full of travelers from all over. Most seem to smoke charas all day and drink hot chocolate while gazing at Tibet in the distance. The Israeli presence is strong here, so if you speak Hebrew you will have an instant crew. We just hung in the sidelines, mostly doing our own thing. I’m from San Francisco – don’t travel this far to party, since I can do that at home. But it is always interesting to chat with people that made it this far at the same time as you. The air is thin from the altitude, so oftentimes you will see the kids slow down a bit after a few ambitious days or sometimes hours.

Gangnani was just fine for us, it is healing, the people there get overlooked, we felt welcome. Hiking along the mountain ridges a day away from our hot-spring home, we found a small village, tucked away in the craggy hills. There, ancient carved wood Shiva artifact stood in a small square with a smattering of tin and wood shacks arranged around it. One of the shacks had a small satellite dish on top, which looked weirdly modern and out of place, but it must have been exciting for them to have a link to the outside world.

Little kids in various colored knit sweaters ran around us. We played with them and took their photos. They were ecstatic and fascinated by the digital camera, so we just kept taking selfies with them and then showing them the pics. This made us popular and so we were surrounded by a band of dirty faced, possibly inbred children, with odd shaped foreheads and strange eyes. Not judging, it is just true. Some cousin mixing is apparent when you get into very rural parts of many places in Asia. They were beautiful and sweet, smiling and playful,but you could tell their lives were hard.

A young man invited us into his shack, 3 rooms, where he lived with his mother and aunt. His room was papered with old Bollywood magazine pages, and that was pretty cool. He sat us down in his room and then left, only to appear a while later with a dubious tasting tea and some betel nuts. The tea was luke-warm, which is not something that gringos like us can take chances with, so we politely held it in our hands, not sure what to do next. Suddenly he left the room after gesturing he would be back soon. And so, we sat there, my 2 friends and I, looking out the small windows at the little kids, who were now playing games and peeking at us from various places. “what are we going to do with this tea? It’s not very hot, the water here is fine for them, but……” Always weird when you are in places where the locals can eat or drink, even swim in a river that’s floating with dead people (Varanasi) and be fine, but one cup of this luke-warm mud water could have us all in a Delhi Hospital. My traveling companion squired away the cup I was holding and snuck out a moment to find a patch of dirt, then came in quietly and sat in place again. “I don’t want to offend them, I just don’t speak their dialect to explain why…..” It was fine.

The minutes ticked by as we sat in this stranger’s room…. I guess… waiting for something to happen. His hay mattress and Bollywood walls, turning a bit sepia from age and air……finally he came back and nodded his head, prayered his hands and said “thank you!” Like we had been the best guests ever. We all walked outside and waved goodbye and so we left, but not without all the kids and a few of their baby goats following us along the mountain trails. It was lovely.

I found out later that we were brought into the house and left there alone with tea not because he was bad at socializing but because it is believed that if a stranger suddenly arrives at your home it is amazing good luck and you have to bring them in to give good fortune to your village. I wish we had known this, we would have left some rupees for them to easily find, but alas, it was not clear at the time.

The area is magical and the people are kind. So remote, it would be hard to go anywhere in the winter. Bring lots of food, and maybe some things for the locals, like socks and thermal underwear. I would stay till next year.

Hot water that pipes right out of the mountains.

Storytime: Java

The concept of horses in trance is not isolated to Haiti or African countries. While traveling in Indonesia in the late 90’s, I witnessed a similar ritual in Java called Kuda Lumping. I experienced other events in the archipelago, primarily Sumatra, that involved speaking to the dead, telepathy, and displays of physical dis-associative behavior that involved sharp objects and eating glass.

My traveling companion had set us on a hunt throughout the islands of Indonesia for a look at the sacred Kris and the Serune Kale. Though almost everyone in Indonesia was packing some sort of blade *the knife culture is strong in this land* we knew we could only look and not buy due to our constant travel – the problems that arise when you are carrying a blade in your back pack. We decided instead to search for the Serune, one that was made diligently and masterfully; it held some power. It was not a game here.

Our query led us to schools, tiny shops hidden in alleys of bustling Indonesian towns, and now a neighborhood park in a small town in East Java that we had just arrived at a few hours earlier. We probably would have skipped coming here, however – we had been told in a town before this that some of the best musicians and crafters of the Serunee played on certain days of the month in this park. We planned to search for them and ask about their tools.

There was a cleared gathering place in this park and down below in the center were 4 young men, teens, practicing Penchak Silat exercises. People were watching, scattered about the concrete risers that surrounded the boys in this half circle. We were the two intriguing foreigners, and nearby- a smattering of extremely old folks and some bored looking young people, who were transfixed by our presence. A young guy approached us and asked questions. When we told him we were American he mentioned how much he loved Madonna and he wanted to write a letter to her. How could he get a letter to Madonna? We wanted to help him, but we felt a bit useless at that moment when it came to tracking down Madge. We did suggest finding a fan club- they could help guide him in the right direction. Thank god the internet was coming soon, hope he got everything needed to sate his Madonna admiration.

We asked him: who made those instruments? And gestured at the little band that was seated in a corner of the park, beyond the teenage boys. He pointed to the Serune player, a heavyset fellow who was clearly wearing a wig and sunglasses while focusing intently on the rhythm. “He is the one, he will tell you” the kid said. I asked him why the guy was in a disguise and he told us that the police in the town (who were part of the Muslim political party) would sometimes kill anyone practicing the old ways. That was the most extreme, but some people lose their jobs when it is found out that they are doing it.

***It is worth noting that a few months after this all happened in the park, we left Indonesia and went onward to Bangkok. Right before we left, the PPP Party was getting riled up and there were demonstrations and gatherings in almost every town we rolled into. Men in green, waving homemade flags, they were harmless to us – we would just wave our hands in support and move out of the fray. The only time was when traveling companion had their foot up against a large bus window – the crowd started yelling and brandishing blades. “Move your foot!” I pointed to it. In certain Asian places pointing the bottom of your foot at someone is like flipping them off. He quickly moved his foot and waved in support, they understood it was an accident and saluted us cordially. Indonesia was sieged with brush fires and this tumultuous election at the same time that resulted in massive smoke damage, riots, destruction of property, murders of prominent religious figures, and the banks collapsing – which created hysteria throughout the archipelago. Police forces and upper status figures had stoked the fires of social unrest by suggesting that these calamities had taken place due to the “black magic” activity of sorcerers and the like that refused to admonish their traditions. A number of self-made militias in East Java went on rampages and murdered some people they thought to be connected to animist practices. A terrifying and heartbreaking scene.

But back to the story of the horse trance:

Teenage boys are engaging in Pencak Silat exercises as the music builds. There is always a faint smell of burning things in every square of Indonesia, smoke is just part of life there, so I don’t recall what else they had offered up. The smell of burning leaves and faint mildews will always take me back to these lands.

As the moves became stronger the music seemed louder…. the young men had red and white striped cloth wrapped around their heads and their chests were bare. Though many Kuda Lumping rituals involve straw horses, many people practice without these props, as the men transform into horses themselves.

This went on for some time and the kid next to me was no longer asking about Madonna. He was sitting quietly, almost shoulder to shoulder with me, as the young men in the center seemed to be suddenly shifting the mood.

At some point an older man with a bullwhip walked into the center of the boys and that is when we could see that their movements had changed from graceful kicks, artful squats, and martial arts lines. It was now organic and fluid – wild and horse-like. They seemed to have lost all control of their necks and their legs became fiercely grounded and dangerous. Charging and flailing. It was hard suddenly to tell if they were evoking the moves with their minds – an improv choreography or sorts, or if another force was moving their bodies, like living puppets. Eyes were glazed.. they no longer needed their eyes to see but their focus was that of a wild animal, sharp and precise.

The man with the bullwhip snapped the whip and then sent it crashing over their backs, herding them in line, as they charged and rustled. When he established his dominance over these beings, he brought out a basket that contained old bottles, light bulbs, drinking glasses, and jars. He poured this pile on the ground before them.

The horse beings descended on the pile and proceeded to eat the glass shards, breaking them in pieces with their hands and chewing them voraciously. There was no blood at any time. People say that they are pretending to mess with glass, but I sat there and watched them do it, not sure what to tell you about that, other than it seemed impossible to fake, considering that density and familiar sound of breaking glass.

Many crescendoes and canters later, the older gentleman, with the help of some others, went to each young man and pulled them down into a supine position on the ground and called them out of the trance. They sat up and brushed themselves off, a little weary, but bright-eyed and present. No scratches or signs of pain, not even marks on their backs where they had clearly been lashed an hour or so before. How does this work? You have to believe. Your reality is what you make it. If this is real to you, so be it. The human mind and our connection to the metaphysical is awe-inspiring.

Much is said about the reason for such dances. It is a celebration of masculine energy, a way to send and receive messages shaman-style, and a method for bringing in positive mojo for people’s needs. Some say it is a form of black magic, but I have nothing certain to say about that. I can confirm that black magic does exist in Indonesia and for that reason you want to tread lightly and carefully in certain situations. However, the key for black magic to be effective *it is said* is Believing. A jaded westerner may not buy that a curse has just been put on them but if you are brought up in a culture where magic is just another Monday for you then that curse is going to seem terrifying – the dark juju thrives on Fear.

We approached the Serune-playing sorcerer, he was said to be the main guy behind this whole scene. He was the nicest, kindest man – and with the help of the Madonna lover, who was our new best friend, we managed to speak to him about the Serune. So that’s how we were invited to his home that minute and shown his many beautiful instruments.

A taxi full of us went off to his home, which was in a shanty village. It was a one room house made entirely of tin siding and wooden 2×4’s. He lived there with his wife and their young daughter, who was deformed, and possibly had cerebral palsy. They made us very strong coffee, Java style – Kopi Joss, which still has the grounds mixed in, pieces of charcoal sometimes, and lots of sugar. It is intense. The sorcerer was delighted by his windfall of good fortune to make this unexpected sale and we were equally pleased to have been welcomed with such kind invitation into this world which we had never seen. My traveling companion purchased a very beautiful Serune that we carried around Sumatra, Thailand, Nepal, India, and Egypt – and still treasure to this day.

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